The Death Spiral of Fossil Fuels

Photovoltaics in USA

Photovoltaics in USA: declining price and rising deployment 

Solar in top 10 states pie chart

Solar in top 10 states (including photovoltaics and concentrating solar power but not solar hot water or space heating)

Those of us concerned about Climate Change and other environmental issues have long advocated a shift from fossil fuels to renewables. My interest in this began even before the 1974 energy crisis. I, like many others, became very concerned about the Earth’s capacity to deal with all the pollutants we were releasing into the air, the water and the soil. We started advocating a Gandhian renunciation of materialism, a shift to simpler lifestyles and experimentation with renewable sources of energy. Using the sun and the wind to generate electricity had been known about since the late Nineteenth Century. Renewables didn’t take off because fossil fuels were too cheap and abundant and the macro level ecological crisis was too slow to be obvious to mainstream opinion.

All that is suddenly starting to change: Climate Change is beginning to manifest as a clear and present danger, the incumbent fossil fuel economy seems ever more unfit for purpose and technical innovation in the Cleantec/Renewables sector is happening at breakneck speed. The death spiral of the global fossil fuel industry may happen more suddenly than anyone anticipated. The growth of solar power in USA is quite a revealing example of the growing rapidity of change.

The blue graph above shows that the annual rate of installation of photovoltaics was 4 MW in the year 2000. At that time those of us advocating solar were dismissed. Solar was perceived as insignificant, and in terms of actual production of course it was. The price of solar has fallen steadily, the price of fossil fuels has been erratically upward, and key tipping points have been passed. By 2013 the annual installation rate had risen to 4,751 MW, over a thousand fold increase in thirteen years. One wonders what it’ll be in another thirteen years. Nobody is dismissing solar as insignificant these days!

The red pie charts reveal much about how this solar revolution is unfolding in USA. The individual states within USA are developing divergent energy economies not based upon their renewable energy potential so much as on their differing levels of political, economic and legislative support. In 2013 just ten states, which account for only 26% of the population, installed 89% of all new solar capacity, whereas the other 40 states, with 74% of the population, installed just 11% between them. These top ten states include sunny California and Arizona, as one might expect, but they also include Massachusetts and Delaware from the cold grey Northeast. Large sunny states like Texas and Florida are not in the top ten, as the dominance of Climate Change denying Republican politicians and the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry still holds sway in these states.

The falling price of renewables and the rising price of fossil fuels are already impacting on businesses in interesting ways. Paradoxically the process of creative destruction, which is at the core of capitalism, is playing out in ways that favour the environment. Old inefficient power stations are following Concorde into rapid obsolescence, and the companies with investments in these technologies are losing money and going bankrupt. Money invested in fracking wells, deep sea oil and a host of other outmoded technologies are looking increasingly like stranded assets. Coupled with this is a massive lobbying effort from a host of environmental groups to promote disinvesting from the fossil fuel industry, just as civil society organised disinvestment from Apartheid South Africa.

Three factors are coming together which may well trigger rapid and profound change in how humanity generates and uses energy: the growing need for massive and rapid action on Climate Change, the falling costs and rapid technical innovation in renewables and the depleting accessibility and affordability of fossil fuels. The possibility of a modern, affluent, urbanised future for humanity seems to be emerging based entirely on renewable forms of energy, and it may now at last be beginning to happen at breathtaking speed.

52 page report on top ten solar states

Mark Jacobson, the Solutions Project and 100% renewables

Jeremy Leggett and a video interview with him